There's a sense of déjà vu while watching Hugh Whitemore's new play. Even though the subject matter is Anthony Eden and the Suez crisis of 1956, there are strong parallels with the recent Iraq war; the same determination to preserve, the same dubious legal arguments and the same levels of mendacity and double-dealing.
According to the programme, Whitemore was thinking of calling the play A Different Kind of Traitor and that would have been a better title than the slightly contrived one that he chose. The overwhelming impression is of a political class, lying and twisting the truth to its own ends – dishonesty lies at the heart of everything, even the characters who try to be politically honest turn out to be adulterers.
It’s this mixture of the personal and the political that’s a key strength of the play. Whitemore is helped by the extraordinary cast of characters playing parts in the drama: Eden himself; James Bond creator, Ian Fleming (whose wife Anne is having with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell); and there's even a cameo appearance by a young John Prescott.
The problem, as with many explicitly political plays, is that there’s a bit too much exposition. “John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state,” Eden explains to a dinner table, as if any political-savvy companions wouldn't have known this. There’s rather a lot of this sort of explanation and it makes the script sound clunky at times. The final scenes set in the 1960s also add little to the play and detract from the main drama – which is compelling enough.
Whitemore is much better at delving into personality and director Philip Franks is helped by a strong cast. Anthony Andrews captures well the contrasting moods of Eden – by all accounts a person who could switch from fearsome rages to suave charm. Imogen Stubbs as Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann, effortlessly switches between society and politics, while Martin Hutson’s Anthony Nutting, the closest we get to a hero in the play, gives a believable portrayal of a politician with principles. Nicholas LePrevost is rather wasted as Gaitskell, whose scenes do little to enliven the action, but there’s strong support from David Yelland as the loyal Selwyn Lloyd.
There are a number of short scenes in the play but Franks keeps the action moving along briskly, aided by Simon Higlett’s adaptable set. Whitemore’s play is never going to go down as a classic but it sheds some light on a pivotal moment in British history, one that has resonance today.